I landed smack in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, a time that throbbed with change and prosperity. Innovation reigned. The speed and efficiency of the Model T edged out the familiarity of the horse and buggy. The economy surged as the radio, telephone, talking movies, and indoor plumbing took hold.
Laborers earned decent wages for hard work. Papa capitalized on his skills with languages and people, charging by the head to bring in workers for the railroad and the shipyards. He also served as an interpreter and earned extra money resolving labor disputes among the immigrant population.
Mama remained productive as well. She bore an eighth child, my brother Michael, but he was ill and not long for this world. With Michael’s death, I reclaimed my place as the baby of the family and cherished my time with my mother. Being close to her usually meant being at church or watching while she sewed vestments for the priests. We attended Mass daily at St. Mary’s, my earliest memories infused with the smell of polished wood and the dim glow of light filtered through stained glass.
I loved church as a child, loved it most when it was empty—when my mother went to decorate, set up for services, or deliver clean robes. I could pray then undisturbed. I felt powerful among the pews, strong among the statues, and grateful to belong to something so large, something so meaningful to my mother.
Her devotion rubbed off, or better said, rubbed in.
Polio struck when I was young, zapping the strength from my legs a few short years after I’d learned to walk. I have scattered memories of the doctor coming to our home, sticking needles in my legs, and receiving no response. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Garcia.” He folded his instruments into his bag. “There’s nothing more to be done.”
Mama stroked my cheek. “Don’t worry,” she whispered.
The doctor left, and she gathered my brothers and sisters together. “Every day,” she said as she massaged their hands against my legs. “Rub them every day. God will do the rest.”
Pete and Freddie took the lead. They would stand me up, and Freddie held my weight against his side. Pete bent and worked my legs, coaxing the muscles back to their intended purpose. After months of persistence, I stepped forward on my own, first to walk and then to run. The doctor couldn’t explain my recovery, but to Mama, it was simple. He only practiced medicine; my mother practiced faith.
My family believed that God had reached through their humble hands and healed me. To me, the message was clear: Faith transcended limitation. As I grew older and tougher, my friends had no idea of the depth of my belief. I kept it that way. Being too religious translated to weakness on the street. I knew differently in my heart. I experienced the power of my mother’s conviction on a daily basis. I stood, quite literally, on the pillars of her faith.
I prayed a lot and realized early that my prayers worked best when I asked God to help others. I made a game of thinking about what people needed and praying for that. It forced me to think about what mattered, what truly made others happy. I was young, with no money and little ability to ease the suffering around me. Prayer was something I could do, so I did it often, enjoying first the reflection and then the excitement of answered prayers.
So when the Depression came and overturned our lives, it wasn’t a tragedy, just another obstacle to overcome. As poverty took hold of our immigrant neighborhood, everyone, it seemed, was in need of a prayer.